Wrappers Off

Eight months ago I started 2016 with a new project: a drawing journal. This was a commitment to bring creative play back into my life in a way that would be totally separate from “work” of any kind, and I promised myself I would cover at least 52 pages with color by the end of the year. I’m returning to this subject now because I’ve come to an unexpected turning point in my visual art adventure.

First, a brief summary of the past six months: Perhaps because I established such a firm boundary between work and play, I resisted any sort of formal or informal learning about drawing or painting while I was doing it. No classes, no teachers, no books. Just a box of the cheapest pastels I could find and a pad of paper, just like kindergarten. This boundary was very freeing, and it was what I needed to get started.

In retrospect, I’m pretty sure what I was doing here was protecting myself from my Inner Critic (hereafter “IC”). I needed to draw by a 5-year-old’s rules: be so engrossed in what you are doing that you barely notice what it is. I couldn’t risk evaluating my work in any way, even for my own education, because my IC happens to have the magical ability to translate perfectly good advice and guidance into thoughts such as, “These are worthless and should never have been done in the first place. What were you thinking?”

So the non-learning approach, to be fair, was actually working pretty well until mid-July. The IC was minding her own business in some far corner of my mind, and I was happily filling page after page with color. Somewhere during the month of August, though, I started to feel restless. It wasn’t boredom, exactly, but I was beginning to feel the desire to do more. I tried bigger paper. I tried a new box of slightly better quality pastels. Mostly, I fidgeted.

The moment of truth arrived when my partner suggested I watch some online instructional videos. The Inner Critic’s ears perked up. I threw a tiny but defiant tantrum and cleaned the kitchen. But like taking a shower or sitting in traffic, sometimes washing the dishes brings unexpected insight.

In my case, I couldn’t deny that there was an opportunity underneath this obstacle. If I wanted to get to page 52 of my journal, something in me needed to change. My artist self was outgrowing kindergarten faster than I expected.

The next morning, I woke up early (the IC was still sleeping, I told myself), and typed “abstract pastel” into the YouTube search field. I sincerely thank the many artists who have shared fragments of their working process through the internet for public use. I felt like I was peeking out of a dark room, seeing outside for the first time.

This all might sound rather melodramatic, but I assure you it felt no less than revelatory to me. I still have quite a large internal block against learning in this particular area, but I knocked a chunk out of it that morning. The Inner Critic, remarkably, was stunned into silence.

What happened next is that I methodically removed the paper wrappers from every single one of my pastel sticks, and started dragging them sideways across the paper. I think my artist self jumped from kindergarten into, say, 10th grade in a single day. Before I was coloring. Now it felt more like painting. Colors blended and textures appeared. Everything was different.

Beyond the dramatic visual difference in my journal, this tiny miracle has reminded me that given the right conditions, growth is inevitable, even when we’re not trying to grow. We are like plants, steadily moving upward. Sure, I could have given up on drawing and called myself a failure instead of watching those videos and trying again. That would have been like dropping a cinder block on top of a young seedling and blaming the seedling for its incompetence.

While I wasn’t paying attention, my 5-year-old artist grew up and wandered out of the classroom, took a walk and came back 10 years older, demanding a bigger desk and more challenging activities. Thankfully, this time I was able to put the cinder block down, far away from the garden, so to speak.

The drawing journal project has four months to go, and I’m happy to say I’m way ahead of schedule on my goal of 52 pages. More importantly, this recent shift has reminded me why I started it in the first place: to practice allowing the creative spirit to direct, and to tell me what it needs and when. By the time this year is done, I hope to invite this way of being into other areas of my life as well, even the ones I may call “work.” I hope that I can be responsive to needs for growth in those places, too.

Do you have a surprising or unexpected story about creative growth? Please share in the comments.